The Status of HIV

New Executive Director Karen Dotson offers a comprehensive look at the emerging needs in HIV/AIDS prevention and care, and how the AIDS Network is responding to that demand.

New Executive Director Karen Dotson* offers a comprehensive look at the emerging needs in HIV/AIDS prevention and care, and how the AIDS Network is responding to that demand.

As the new Executive Director, I am thrilled to have the opportunity to work at AIDS Network and devote my energy, skills and knowledge to Wisconsin’s HIV/AIDS community. I am proud to lead the agency and optimistic about what we can achieve for people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS.

I have more than 25 years of senior-level managerial experience and consulting in the public health and human services field, including over ten years of working in HIV/AIDS and related areas. I have chaired and participated in various board of director committees for local community health centers and served on numerous grant review panels as chairperson and reviewer, for federal and state government programs. In addition, I have taught over seven years as an adjunct college professor for graduate and undergraduate students in areas of organizational transformation, cultural competency and program budgeting.

One of the many things I have learned through the years is the importance of building relationships in the community to achieve common goals. With this knowledge, I am happy to put my experience to work on behalf of AIDS Network’s important mission.

Our board and staff are committed to our mission. We provide comprehensive HIV/AIDS services including prevention, case management support, and legal services in an effort to enhance the well-being and quality of life for people affected by and living with HIV/AIDS and related illnesses. The challenges we must confront together are many: apathy, ignorance, stigma, poverty, homelessness, mental illness and AODA issues, access to health care, public benefits and social support.

The Case Management team serves around 500 people, including almost 400 living with HIV on an ongoing basis. From the initial referral or contact, to medical care, transportation vouchers, and daily support for clients with significant mental health challenges, the services AIDS Network provides are as diverse as our clients. To keep up with growing needs, our case managers continually improve the services we offer.

Stable housing continues to be a major challenge for many of our clients. AIDS Network case managers consider client housing as one of the top priorities. To meet this chronic need, case managers work closely with clients to help them obtain and secure housing. AIDS Network also collaborates with a network of local agencies that provide housing assistance.

Emergency Shelter is a frequent need. Thanks to funding support from grantors such as the Rotary Foundation, case managers are sometimes able to provide vouchers for a limited number of nights in a motel. This service enables homeless clients in fragile health to avoid overcrowded shelters and gives them the stability to secure stable housing.

Navigating health and disability benefits is one of the most complicated and challenging tasks our clients face. The variety of programs available might include employer-sponsored insurance, medical assistance, social security benefits and Wisconsin’s Health Insurance Risk Sharing Plan. Each client’s unique employment and health history add to the complexity of benefits.

To better assist clients with the myriad of benefit issues, a Benefits Specialist position has recently been added to the case management team to focus on public benefits counseling, including Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security and other public and private benefit programs. This specialist position is crucial in helping clients make the best possible choices about employment, health insurance and disability benefits.

AIDS Network strives to provide services that reach beyond the practical needs. We also address the social and emotional concerns that affect people living with HIV.

Support groups are essential in helping clients looking for community to live well with HIV. Two new groups were launched in 2007 serving the Latino and women of color HIV communities. These groups provide social and emotional support, HIV education, fun activities like movie and game nights, and open conversation. A weekly harm-reduction-based relapse prevention support group also meets at AIDS Network.

For clients newly diagnosed with HIV, trained peer supporters are available to give one-on-one emotional support and information. Peer supporters are volunteers living with HIV who provide a voice of experience and hope. Two new supporters were trained last fall and more supporters will likely be added this year.

When counseling is the most appropriate way to manage the burdens of living with HIV, case managers refer clients to experienced mental health providers and provide funding for several therapy sessions. Thanks to Ryan White funding distributed by the Wisconsin AIDS/HIV Program, this benefit has been expanded to assist not only uninsured clients, but also clients unable to access mental health services due to unaffordable co-pays and deductibles.

Case management and all other services provided by AIDS Network are provided to our clients free of charge.

One constant thing since the epidemic began in 1981 is the knowledge of how the virus is transmitted. Early on, officials were able to conclude that the majority of cases were the result of unprotected sexual activity and the sharing of intravenous needles. Today, unprotected sexual activity and the sharing of needles account for 90% of all AIDS Network cases. HIV testing, needle exchange and educational outreach are critical services we provide to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS in our community.

AIDS Network utilizes two methods for HIV testing. One is Orasure, an oral test where an individual has a testing paddle placed in their mouth for approximately 3 to 4 minutes with results available in two weeks. The second is rapid testing, where a small amount of blood is collected from the tip of the finger with test results available in 15 minutes. All testing is done without charge and the individual can choose between anonymous and confidential testing options.

We conducted 809 tests in 2007, 515 of those were by the rapid testing method. Of those, 221 were individuals having an HIV test for the first time. Each year we educate about 500 people about the risk of HIV/AIDS in alcohol and other drug addiction (AODA) treatment centers within our 13 county service area. These individuals are provided with information about HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, offered HIV counseling and testing services. Another high risk group we specifically target is men having sex with men (MSM). We provided education and outreach to almost 3,000 individuals in this category in 2007.

Two new prevention support groups started this year are Hermanos Latino—a group for gay and bisexual Latino men, and Same Gender Loving/Liking for gay and bisexual African American men. In addition to our Poz Lite group for HIV gay or bisexual men, these groups help participants cope with day to day challenges.

Needle exchange is another major and important component of our prevention program, helping halt the spread of HIV and Hepatitis. Last year we had 2,643 total contacts for needle exchange and took in 70,000 used syringes and distributed 75,000 clean syringes, protecting thousands of individuals, partners and families.

Starting in June, AIDS Network’s prevention department begins providing a new service. Hepatitis C testing will be available at our agency thanks to a collaborative agreement with the Madison/Dane County Public Health Department.

Prevention staff members received phlebotomy training at Madison Area Technical College (MATC) through a joint effort involving the Wisconsin State HIV/AIDS Program, MATC and AIDS Network. This training allows an enhanced, comprehensive approach to our needle exchange services. We will provide in addition to clean syringes and HIV testing, Hepatitis C testing all at one central location, a location that intravenous drug users know they can trust.

We are very excited to be able to offer Hepatitis C testing at AIDS Network. By offering Hepatitis testing we will provide a much needed service to individuals who may not otherwise be tested due to lack of insurance or trust of a traditional medical setting. This is something our consumers have been requesting. The prevalence of Hepatitis C Virus may be as high as 30% among people living with HIV/AIDS

The last couple of months I have had the opportunity to meet with various AIDS Network partners, community leaders and public health and elected officials. These meetings are integral as we share common goals including, fighting HIV/AIDS, exploring funding opportunities to better serve our clients, and assessing how we can work together to improve services. Community relationships help gauge current services and evaluate our potential to develop and grow to better serve our consumers.

Like most nonprofits, AIDS Networks depends on the generosity and financial support from numerous individuals, organizations and corporations. As government funding and private grants decline and become more restrictive, fundraising events are increasingly more important as a source of revenue. Our oldest event (started in 1992), Red Ribbon Affair, took place in early April at the Monona Terrace. This annual gala dinner and silent auction attracted 449 attendees this year, the largest Red Ribbon Affair ever. Our biggest fundraiser is the ACT Wisconsin AIDS Ride coming up August 7 – 10. Over 160 riders have already registered to participate in ACT 6. To date, this four-day, 300-mile bike tour through South Central Wisconsin has contributed over $1.3 million for agency services. More information about AIDS Network events and how to support our work is available at aidsnetwork.org.

As we move forward, more networking and collaboration are needed for the 13 counties we serve. Building new and enhancing ongoing relationships will enable AIDS Network to increase opportunities for the people we serve throughout our region. This can be accomplished as long as we continue to work together and strategically develop a plan to provide excellent programs and services for the people of Wisconsin.

*Editor’s Note: Since this article was published, Dan Guinn has been named Executive Director of AIDS Network in 2012. Guinn replaces Karen Dotson, who left in August after becoming executive director in 2008. Guinn previously was the agency’s director of legal services. Dotson is currently an Objective Reviewer on various Committees for the United States Department of Health and Human Services and an Adjunct Professor at Springfield College and Upper Iowa University.